African American Males in Foster Care and the Risk of Delinquency: The Value of Social Bonds and Permanence

Article excerpt

Juvenile delinquency remains a significant problem for child welfare systems throughout the United States. Victims of child abuse and neglect are more likely relative to children in the general population to engage in delinquency (Ryan & Testa, 2005; Widom, 1989). Although the magnitude of this relationship is not fully understood (Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnsen, 1993), the risk of delinquency is particularly high for African American males, adolescents, and children in substitute care settings. Unfortunately little is known about the factors that connect the experiences of maltreatment and delinquency. This lack of knowledge makes it nearly impossible to decrease the risk of delinquency for children in foster care. To improve the understanding of juvenile delinquency in the child welfare system, the current study tests aspects of social control theory within the context of foster care. We focus specifically on the effects of foster parent-foster child attachment, commitment, and permanence. The results indicate that strong levels of attachment decrease the risk of delinquency for youth in foster care. Involvement with religious organizations also decreases the risk of delinquency. In contrast, perceptions of placement instability, placement with relatives, and school suspensions are associated with an increased risk of delinquency.

Juvenile delinquency remains a significant problem for child welfare systems throughout the United States. Victims of child abuse and neglect are more likely relative to children in the general population to engage in delinquency (Ryan & Testa, 2005; Widom, 1989). Although the magnitude of this relationship is not fully understood (Zingraff, Leiter, Myers, & Johnsen, 1993), the risk of delinquency is particularly high for African American males and children in substitute care settings (Ryan & Testa, 2005). Yet debate continues regarding the factors that connect these two phenomena. To improve the understanding of juvenile delinquency in the child welfare system, the current study tests aspects of social control theory within the context of foster care. Our approach is similar to that of development and life course criminologists-we investigate the significance of key institutions of social control as children transition through adolescence and into early adulthood (Sampson & Laub, 1993). We focus exclusively on African American males in the foster care system. We examine attachment, commitment, and perceptions of permanence.

Healthy development is dependent upon parents and other socializing agents making consistent investments in the care, education, and supervision of children. Such investments help instill a sense of attachment, commitment, and obligation that tie children to family and conventional role models. Social control theorists posit that these investments and social bonds prevent children from engaging in delinquency. Difficulties arise when children experience low levels of investment and weak social bonds. When confronted with opportunities to engage in nonconforming or undesirable behaviors, children with extensive and strong social bonds have a greater stake in conformity and are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior that might jeopardize those relationships (Furstenberg & Hughes, 1995; Hirschi, 1969). Attachment and commitment represent two key components of the social bond.


Attachment is defined in terms of a psychological and /or emotional connection with significant others and represents a core element in the development of social bonds (Marcus, 1991). Children lacking adequate levels of attachment are believed to be free from moral restraints (Hirschi, 1969). When children and adolescents are free from moral restraints and are insensitive to the feelings and norms of positive role models, the risk of participating in delinquent behavior increases (Thornberry Lizotte, Krohn, Farnworth, & Jang, 1991).

Child welfare practitioners and scholars assert that attachment is important because it is the foundation for the provision of quality care and is an important predictor of healthy psychological development (Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption, and Dependent Care, 2000; Kelly & McSherry 2002; Vuchinich, Ozretich, Pratt, & Kneedler, 2002). The establishment of positive relationships between the foster child and the foster care provider can minimize a child's emotional distress and the negative effects on his or her development from temporary separation from parents. Moreover, attachment can provide a safe context in which new relational skills can be developed (Haight, Kagle, & Black, 2003). The literature describing the importance of attachment is consistent. Yet the literature focusing on the strengths of social bonds achieved within the foster home is somewhat inconsistent.

In a study of young adults leaving the foster care system in Wisconsin, Courtney et al. (2001) reported that 75% of all youth felt "somewhat close" or "close" to their foster caregivers. Nearly 40% of these youth also report staying in contact with foster parents subsequent to discharge, and 20% report receiving continued emotional support and advice with decision making. Despite high levels of perceived attachment, 37% reported running away from the foster home at least once, 32% reported feeling lonely, 28% felt foster parents treated their biological children better than they treated foster children, and 34% reported being "mistreated" at least some of the time while in substitute care placement. Similarly, in a study of quality parent-child interactions Wallace and Belcher (1997) report that approximately 18% of foster children live in "at risk" homes. To some extent the reports of low levels of attachment are not entirely surprising. Foster care placements are intended to be temporary. One might thus expect some reluctance or unwillingness in developing strong and secure attachments.

The studies of attachment have made an important contribution to the literature in terms of understanding parent-child relationships within the context of foster care. Researchers, however, have yet to fully investigate the impact of these relationships on the development of problematic behavior. One goal of the current study is to address this gap in knowledge by specifically examining the association between foster parent - foster child relationships and juvenile delinquency.


Commitment is another central construct noted throughout the control theory literature and refers to an individuals' investment in society or stake in conventional institutions. Such investments result in commodities (e.g., cherished relationships, academic success, and employment) that are jeopardized when individuals engage in delinquency (Polakowski, 1994). The school and church (or religious organizations more generally) are perhaps the most recognizable institutions.

The research on commitment or investment in educational institutions and its association with delinquency is fairly consistent. This is true for a wide range of educational experiences. Specifically, an increased risk of juvenile delinquency is associated with the following: low levels of academic achievement, lack of participation in school activities, low aspirations for continued education, unpleasant relationships with teachers, rejection of administrator authority, disregard for school policies and rules, and dropping out (Agnew, 1985; Agnew & Petersen, 1989; Gottfredson, 2001; Maguin & Loeber, 1996).

Important to note is that the relationship between educational experiences and delinquency often vary by child demographics. Moreover, there is little consensus on the direction of this relationship. Do negative school experiences cause delinquency? Does delinquency cause negative school experiences? Or does a third set of variables exist that increases the likelihood of both negative school experiences and delinquency? This debate continues (Agnew, 2001). Specific to the current study, researchers have also investigated the mediating effects of school performance on the maltreatment - delinquency relationship. Zingraff et al. (1993) report, "[A]dequate school performance is associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of delinquency among maltreated children" (p. 83). We intend to build upon this body of educational research by investigating the effects of additional school related variables (e.g., participating in after-school activities, aspirations to attend college, and suspensions) for maltreated children.

Similar to the role of schools and education in general, the church is an important agent of social control (Johnson, Larson, Li, & Jang, 2000). Within many African American communities, the church is viewed as the most important institution in the United States and has had an enormous impact on the religious, cultural, social, and political aspects of life in America (Langley & Kahnweiler, 2003). Isaac, Guy and Valentine (2001) indicate that the Black church has not limited itself to spiritual and religious edification but has also served as a refuge from racism and a location where African Americans could learn values, knowledge, and skills. In the current study we investigate the impact of religious organizations for African American youth in foster care.

Although somewhat limited in recent years, philosophers and researchers have a long history exploring the connections between religion, deviance, and delinquency. Durkheim (1951) argued that weak and unstable attachments and low levels of social integration (specifically involvement with religious institutions) were related to a host of undesirable behaviors including suicide. A review of more recent work reveals a similar picture. Cochran, Wood, and Arneklev (1994) report that with the exception of one study, every published work that focuses on religion and delinquency since 1983 reports a substantial religiosity effect. That is, the more individuals participate and are committed to religious institutions, the less likely it is that such individuals will engage in deviant and delinquent behavior. Similar to the schools-delinquency research, debate continues regarding the exact pathways by which religion influences delinquency. However, as churches are often central institutions in many African American communities, we investigate the effects of involvement with religious institutions on delinquency.


In addition to the role of attachment and commitment in the development of delinquency, the current study focuses on permanency. Placement instability is important and relevant for at least two reasons. First, child welfare systems struggle with securing stable placements for children removed from the biological family home. A recent study of foster children in Illinois reports that of all children in care on June 30, 1998, approximately 38% had experienced at least four different placements (Hartnett, Falconnier, Leathers, & Testa, 1999). The difficulty of securing stable placements is not limited to Illinois nor is the focus on instability a recently expressed concern (Berrick, Needell, Barth, & Jonson-Reid, 1998; Millham, Bullock, Hosie, & Haak, 1986; Pardeck, 1985). In 1990 researchers documented that approximately 30% of children in substitute care settings experienced more than three placements (U.S. House of Representatives, 1994).

The second rationale for focusing on permanence is the accumulating body of evidence which suggests that placement instability is associated with a wide variety of negative outcomes including mental health problems, weak attachments, and even juvenile delinquency (Early & Mooney, 2002; Fanshel, Finch, & Grundy, 1990; Goldstein, Freud, & Solnit, 1973; Lieberman, 1987; Van der Kolk, 1987; Ryan & Testa, 2005). The permanency literature has greatly advanced the understanding of the need for safe and stable homes. We intend to build on this literature and make a unique contribution by exploring not only the effects of placement instability, but also the relationship between perceptions of instability and delinquency. That is, we are concerned not only with how instability impacts problematic behavior, but also with how one's perception of future instability may relate to these same behaviors.

Research Questions and Hypotheses

In the current study we address the following three research questions: (1) Are high levels of attachment between the foster child and the foster parent associated with a reduced risk of delinquency? (2) Are high levels of commitment with school and church associated with a reduced risk of delinquency? (3) Are perceptions of placement instability associated with an increased risk of delinquency? The research questions are stated in terms consistent with our hypotheses. That is, we hypothesize that children reporting high levels of attachment and commitment will be less likely to enter the juvenile justice system - relative to children reporting low levels. We also hypothesize that the perception of placement instability increases the risk of delinquency.



We use a subsample from the Illinois Subsidized Guardianship Waiver Demonstration. The purpose of this demonstration was to evaluate the effectiveness of guardianship. The sample for the waiver evaluation was comprised of 1,502 youth between 8 and 20 years old. The design was experimental and the youth completed interviews at two points in time. The sample selection is based on the following criteria: African American males in foster care (as opposed to adoptive home, guardianship, or home of parent), living in Cook County, and between 11 and 16 years of age (eligible for a delinquency petition) at the time of the first interview. The sample includes both kinship and nonkinship foster families. These criteria yielded a sample of 278 youth.

Data and Procedures

Several sources of data are used in the current study. The child welfare data from the IDCFS include information on demographic characteristics, reports of maltreatment (report date, type, finding), and child welfare services (placement dates, placement types). The juvenile justice data include delinquency petitions filed in Cook County Juvenile Court between January 1980 and December 2000. The juvenile justice data include delinquency petition date, delinquent offense, and judicial disposition. Child welfare and juvenile justice data were linked by common identifiers using probabilistic matching software. Finally, the subsidized guardianship survey data were used to measure attachment, commitment, and perceptions of permanence.

As part of the subsidized guardianship waiver demonstration, youth completed surveys at multiple points in time. We use the first wave of survey data in the current study. The first wave (completed between winter 1998 and spring 1999) captured baseline information on families and children. The baseline interviews were conducted with caregivers identified by the state as legally responsible for the care of the children in the demonstration and with sampled children ages 9 and older. The children were interviewed in-person with an audio computer-assisted self-interview (ACASI). The child interview addressed the children's relationships with the caregiver and others in the home, relationships with biological parents and other family members outside the home, connectedness with the community, school attendance and performance, physical and mental health, self-efficacy, services received, and feelings about permanency. The instrument was developed and pretested using focus groups and individual interviews with foster care children in Chicago to explore conceptual issues and test question wording and the usability of the ACASI. The child interview was selfadministered, with a computer voice reading the questions and response options as they appeared in print on the screen. Children selected their answers by pressing a touch-sensitive screen on the laptop computer. Field associates were responsible for setting up the laptop computer for the child, instructing the child in the use of the tutorial, and monitoring the child's successful completion of the tutorial. At the conclusion of the tutorial, the field associate placed headphones on the child so the child could complete the interview in privacy. The interview took an average of 35 minutes to complete.


The social bond is a central construct noted throughout the social control literature and is comprised of attachment, commitment, and individual beliefs. We focus on two of these three components: attachment and commitment. Attachment refers to the social bond or connection that exists between the foster youth and the foster parents. When an individual's bond with society in general and family more specifically is weak, the likelihood of delinquency is increased (Hirschi, 1969). We use seven survey items to estimate two dimensions of this connection. The format for these survey items was a 5-point scale (1 = never, 2 = hardly ever, 3 = some of the time, 4 = most of the time, 5 = all of the time). Four items are used to measure the parent-child relationship that exists between foster youth and foster parent. Sample items are "when something is bothering you how often do you talk with your [name of foster parent]," and "how often does [name of foster parent] let you know he/she cares about you?" The remaining two items are used to measure the extent to which foster parents are familiar with the youth's peer group and knowledgeable regarding the youth's whereabouts. We label this construct parental monitoring. These items are "when you go out how often do you tell someone in your home where you are going," and "how often do any adults in your home check out your friends or people you hang out with?"

Commitment refers to an individuals' investment or stake in conventional institutions, such as the family, school, religion, and employment. Such investments result in commodities (e.g., cherished relationships, academic success, and steady employment) that are jeopardized when individuals engage in delinquency (Polakowski, 1994). In the current study we use six survey items that focus on education and religion. The format for these survey items was a yes or no response. The education items are entered into multivariate models as three unique variables. Sample education items are "do you plan to attend college," and "are you participating in any after-school activities." The three items that measure a commitment to religious institutions are summed to create a scale ranging from 0 (indicating no commitment) to 3 (indicating full commitment). Sample religion items include "in the past 30 days have you gone to a religious service or church school in a church, mosque, temple, or other place of worship," and "in the past 30 days have you gone to any other events at a church, mosque, temple, or other place of worship with your family." The items that comprise our measures of attachment and commitment resemble well-established measures of social control often used in delinquency research (Agnew, 1991; Wiatrowski, Griswold, & Roberts, 1981).

Juvenile Delinquency

There is no consensus on an ideal measure of delinquency. Prior research has utilized a variety of measurement techniques including self-report surveys (Thornberry & Krohn, 2000), official arrest records (Widom, 1991), and even entry in secure correctional facilities Qonson-Reid, 2002). Advantages and disadvantages are associated with each approach. In the current study, we use the filing of an official delinquency petition in juvenile court. This measure is broad in scope and has been used in prior research (Ryan & Testa, 2005). This measure is not limited to a particular type of offense. The petitions used in the current study include offenses that range from court order violations to criminal homicide. The most frequent offenses were property related (43% ).


Similar to the difficulties associated with identifying an ideal measure of delinquency, there is ongoing debate surrounding the measurement of child maltreatment. More specifically, the debate focuses on the inclusion or exclusion of unsubstantiated allegations of maltreatment in delinquency research (Leiter, Myers, & Zingraff, 1994). In the current study, we include all investigated allegations of maltreatment, regardless of finding. All youth, however, had at least one substantiated report of maltreatment. The allegations of maltreatment include reports of physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and substance exposure at birth.

Analytic Techniques

We use factor analysis to construct the parent-child relationship measure. The outcome of interest is juvenile delinquency. We use survival analysis (SPSS Cox Regression) to examine the influence of individual variables on survival rates. This analytic technique is similar to logistic regression in that it enables one to calculate the odds of a particular event occurring. Survival analysis, however, considers the differential impact between groups on the timing of this event (Land, McCall, & Parker, 1994). In the current study, youth vary in age at the time of interview. They are thus exposed to the risk of a delinquency petition for varying lengths of time. The time period used in the current study is the number of days between the interview and December 31, 2001 (the last date delinquency petitions were available). The time period was adjusted if a particular youth turned 18 years of age prior to December 31, 2001. The average time at risk for this sample was 2.00 years, ranging from 1.84 months to 2.5 years. Survival models adjust for these variations by censoring observations. Observations are censored if the target event (delinquency petition) was not observed during the period of data collection. The resultant coefficients are interpreted similarly to those from logistic regression.

Sample Description

This study focuses on 278 African American males in foster care. Of these youth, 40% had at least prior allegation of physical abuse, 58% neglect, and 7% sexual abuse. At the time of the first interview, 62% of the youth had experienced at least two changes in placement. On average, youth were 12.8 years old at the time of interview. At the time of the interview, 81% of the youth were in a relative care placement. Regarding school, 54% had experienced at least one out of school suspension, 61% were participating in afterschool activities at the time of the interview, and 93% reported plans to attend college. Of the youth, 39% anticipated changing placements within the next 12 months. Subsequent to the completion of the first interview, 11% had at least one delinquency petition. The descriptive statistics for all variables are displayed in Table 1. Higher scores on the parent-child relationship and parental monitoring scales correspond with more positive relationship and more frequent monitoring.


Factor and Reliability Analysis

Items and factor loadings are presented in Table 2. The factor correspond to the foster parent - foster child relationship. All factor loadings are above .76. Reliability analysis indicated that the construct has high internal consistency (Cronbach's alphas of .79, see Table 2). Reliability analysis also indicated that dropping any items would not result in a higher Cronbach's alpha.

Bivariate Relationships

Tables 3 and 4 display the likelihood of having a delinquency petition by various characteristics. Although not statistically significant, the risk of delinquency appears to peak (18%) at age 13. Of children in relative foster placements, 13% had at least one delinquency petition, compared with 2% of those in nonrelative home placements. Several of the measures related to commitment, both education (school suspension and participation in after-school activities) and religion, indicate that commitment within these domains decreases the risk of delinquency. Perceptions of placement instability appear to increase the likelihood of delinquency (17% compared with 8% ). Finally, reported levels of attachment (parent child relationships and parental monitoring) are also associated with subsequent delinquency. Children reporting a more positive relationship and children who experience a higher level of parental monitoring (as indicated by high scores on each measure) appear less likely to have a subsequent delinquency petition.

Survival Analysis

In general, the Cox regression findings for males are consistent with the bivariate findings about child characteristics, attachment, commitment, and subsequent delinquency. The results from the Cox regression are displayed in Table 5. The table includes the coefficient and standard error for each independent variable as well as the hazard ratio. A hazard ratio greater than one indicates a higher likelihood of delinquency. A hazard ratio less than one indicates a lower likelihood of delinquency.

We find that six variables help explain delinquency for African American males in the foster care system. Regarding attachment, males reporting more positive relationships with foster care pro- viders were less likely to experience a delinquency petition. No sig- nificant relationship emerged between parental monitoring and subsequent delinquency. Regarding the various measures of commit- ment, involvement with a religious organization decreases the like- lihood of delinquency for children in foster care. School suspensions were associated with an increased risk of delinquency. No significant relationship emerged between plans to attend college and subsequent delinquency petitions. Regarding placement instability, children that had already experienced multiple placements were more likely to have a delinquency petition compared to children with only one substitute care placement. This pattern continued with regard to perceptions of future instability. The foster youth who expected a change in placement within the next 12 months were more likely to have a subsequent delinquency petition. Finally, children in relative foster homes were more likely to have a delinquency petition compared to children in nonrelative placements.


The relationship between maltreatment and delinquency is well documented. Yet there is very little research on the factors that connect these two phenomena. The purpose of this study was to address this gap in the literature by identifying and determining the factors that connect child maltreatment and delinquency for African American males in foster care. The conceptualization of the problem and the related analyses were grounded in theories of social control. We focused particular attention on the value of the social bond and specifically on the attachment between foster youth and foster parent and on the level of commitment youth report in both education and religion. We also investigated the association between perceived instability and subsequent delinquency. The results support several of the stated hypotheses.

Are high levels of attachment between the foster child and the foster parent associated with a reduced risk of delinquency?

We used two measures of attachment to address this question. The first measure focused on the relationship between the foster youth and the foster parent and included questions about frequency of communication and level of caring. Additional measures focused on parental monitoring and included questions about setting rules and familiarity with the youth's peer group. The findings support our hypothesis of attachment and delinquency, but only with regard to the child-parent relationship. That is, more positive relationships between the foster youth and foster parent are associated with a decreased risk of delinquency. No significant association emerged between parental monitoring and delinquency.

Are high levels of commitment with school and church associated with a reduced risk of delinquency?

We used a variety of measures organized within education and religion to estimate the commitment - delinquency relationship. These measures included information on prior school suspensions, plans to attend college, participation in after-school activities, and involvement with religious organizations. The findings support our hypotheses of commitment and delinquency, but only with regard to involvement with religious organizations and prior school suspensions. Foster youth involved with religious organizations (whether for religious service or other community event) were less likely to experience a delinquency petition. In contrast, foster children that have been suspended from school were more likely to engage in delinquent behavior.

Are perceptions of placement instability associated with an increased risk of delinquency?

In the current study we took a unique approach to estimating the effects of placement instability. Although we controlled for prior movements, we focused specifically on the child's perceptions of instability. Specifically, children were asked if they believed they would experience a change of placement within the next 12 months. The results indicate that the children predicting a change in placement (perceived instability) were significantly more likely to experience delinquency petitions as compared with those predicting no change in foster placement. This finding, specific to perceptions of permanence, is consistent with much of the literature on placement instability in the foster care system. Specifically, the children that experience multiple movements within the foster care system are more likely to engage in delinquency as compared to children with no movements (Ryan & Testa, 2005). Despite this consistency, the finding noted in the current study does raise a few additional questions about placement instability. What is it about instability that increases the risk of delinquency? Is it the disruption itself or the events that precede the disruption? In the current study, nondelinquent children were asked to predict the stability of their current foster care placement. Controlling for prior movements and length of time in the foster care system, children predicting a change in placement were at an increased risk of delinquency. It is possible that the actual disruption is not responsible for the increased risk of delinquency but rather the turmoil that precedes this disruption. This notion is similar to the finding noted throughout the divorce literature. Researchers find that it is not always the divorce itself that increases the risk of negative outcomes for children, but rather the preceding conflict and discord (Amato & Sobolewski, 2003).

Additional Findings of Interest

One unexpected finding was the relationship that emerged between the type of foster home and the likelihood of delinquency. Controlling for a wide range of child characteristics, children in relative care homes were significantly more likely to experience a delinquency petition compared to children in nonrelative placements. To date, scant research compares the likelihood of delinquency petitions for children in relative and nonrelative homes. We thus were not sure what to expect with regard to placement type and delinquency. In a review of the kinship care and delinquency literature, only one study compares official delinquency petitions for children in family settings (which includes placement with biological parents or relatives) with children placed in nonrelative settings (English, Widom, & Branford, 2001). The authors conclude that children in nonrelative placements are more likely to be arrested. The problem with this comparison is that the risks associated with each group are not equivalent. The family setting group includes children who are permitted to remain with the biological parents. These children are likely exposed to significantly fewer risks as compared with the group of children taken into protective custody.

Despite the lack of research focusing on kinship placements and the likelihood of delinquency, a broad literature exists that documents a wide range of risks and benefits. Thus, perhaps higher delinquency rates should not be entirely surprising. Regarding risks, kinship care providers are more likely to be poor, single, and older and to have fewer years of education as compared with nonkin providers. Kinship care providers also have less contact with caseworkers, and receive fewer support services relative to nonkin providers (Barth, Courtney, Berrick, & Albert, 1994; Berrick, Barth, & Needell, 1994). In short, "[C]hildren in kinship care homes face significantly more environmental hardships than children in [nonkin] foster homes (Ehrle & Geen, 2002). Despite these hardships, there are numerous advantages to kinship care placements. For example, children in kinship care arrangements experience more stable placements, are more likely to maintain ties with their biological family, and are less likely to reenter substitute care placement subsequent to reunification (Berrick, Needell, Barth, & JonsonReid, 1998; Courtney, 1995; Testa, 2001).

We were not able to identify the specific factors or characteristics of relative placements that increase the risk of delinquency. That is, we cannot explain why children placed with relatives are at in increased risk of delinquency, only that such a risk exists. The comparison of kinship and traditional foster homes (with a focus on delinquency outcomes) thus warrants additional attention. Perhaps some of the same desirable characteristics associated with kinship care placement (close proximity to biological family home) are also related to higher delinquency rates. This seems especially true for kinship care placements in neighborhoods with high rates of delinquency and crime.

Implications for Practice

The implications for social work practice are clear. It is essential for child welfare professionals to (1) facilitate and maintain attachment between foster youth and foster parent, (2) facilitate and maintain youth involvement with important social institutions (e.g., schools), and (3) secure a stable home for all foster youth. A broad literature describes strategies for improving foster youth-foster parent relations. Within this literature, scholars and practitioners note that foster parents need a variety of support services subsequent to the child's placement in the home. Specifically, authors report that skill training and support services for dealing with the health and psychological problems of foster children, training in empathy skills, and developing special interests and talents of foster children might increase retention rate, increase feelings of selfefficacy, and improve children's attachment to their foster parents (Burry 1999; Chamberlain & Moreland, 1992; Kalland & Sinkkonen, 2001; Marcus, 1991). The lack of such training is one reason given by foster parents who drop out of the foster care system (Burry, 1999; Chamberlain & Moreland, 1992).

Future Research

The current study investigated specific aspects of social control theory. We empirically tested the relationship between attachment, commitment, perceptions of permanence, and delinquency. The findings from this research make a unique contribution to the literature. Yet there are questions that remain unanswered. Most importantly, how do social controls prevent delinquency in the foster care system? Are children simply reluctant to engage in delinquency because of the time and energy invested in these relationships or are the processes more complex? Thornberry (1987) argues that youth are more likely to associate with delinquent peers as social controls weaken. These associations lead to a further reduction in social controls. The reciprocal process or loop is often interrupted as youth transition to adulthood and establish new commitments with work and family. This model integrates aspects of both control theory (e.g., importance of social relationships) and learning theory (e.g., conforming with delinquent peer group). Testing this model within the context of the child welfare system is essential for two reasons. First, it is important to understand the exact mechanisms that increase the risk of delinquency for victims of abuse and neglect. Second, this work is necessary if one hopes to develop efficient and effective delinquency prevention programs.



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[Author Affiliation]

Joseph P. Ryan PhD is Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow, Children and Family Research Center, School of Social Work, Urbana, Illinois. Mark F. Festa PhD is Associate Professor and Director, Children and Family Research Center, School of Social Work, Urbana, Illinois. Fuhua Zhai PhD is Postdoctoral Research Fellow, New York University, New York, New York.

[Author Affiliation]

Address reprint requests to Dr. Joseph P. Ryan, School of Social Work, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 1207 West Oregon Street, Urbana, IL 61801. Phone: 217/244-5235. E-mail:


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